Farooq Ahmed used to be on Twitter a lot. The D.C.-based science journalist and novelist posted plenty of hot takes, diving into wide-ranging discussions of the day’s most pressing events with pithy humor. He even invented a hashtag, #mybrownass, for commenting on race and religion.
But his final Tweet — posted on Nov. 18, 2022 — sent him out with a whimper, not a bang: “It’s kinda amazing to realize that social media proved more difficult to manage than going into space,” he mused before going quiet.
Ahmed had once appreciated the access Twitter, now called X, provided to news and opinions from verifiable sources. “The loss of that was hard,” he now admits, remembering initial fears about missing important conversations. He simply didn’t trust the direction of the platform enough to continue relying on it. Ahmed still has a Twitter account, but he stopped posting to it, using it only to essentially eavesdrop on scientists.
More than a year later, Ahmed is glad to have stopped engaging.
“I feel better in general, but I also feel better about myself for being able to show some self-control,” he says. “I already had a love/hate relationship with social media, but the changes to the site” — notably the blue check mark, once meaning that Twitter had confirmed the identity of the person posting, now functioning as a receipt for an $8 exchange – “left me with this sense of needing to go back to a previous era and do the homework to verify information.”
Given the time and effort that required, Ahmed decided that the dwindling benefits of Twitter no longer justified exposure to the overwhelming toxicity of the site.
I can relate. I’ve been wanting to leave the platform for the same reasons. And much like Ahmed, I would almost definitely feel better about myself — and the world — if I did. Since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the subsequent air strikes and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, in particular, I’m increasingly torn by competing instincts. Vigilance urges me to monitor the site to stay aware of even the most problematic discourse, while a wiser inner voice implores me to stay away, recognizing that once the app has me in its thrall, the attention I give it is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to my own understanding or anyone else’s. Conversely, it is very likely to ruin my day.
Detangling my information-seeking habits from my X feed has nonetheless proven difficult, as embarrassing as that is to admit. I don’t just need willpower to break the habit; I also need to find new ways to access the many kinds of information I once got there. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us. Hence, the apps-race among big tech companies competing for Next Twitter status.
In July, as tech companies feverishly released new apps and journalists tweeted just as feverishly about where we could now find them (Bluesky, Mastodon, Threads, oh my!), Kate Knibbs, a Chicago-based senior writer for Wired, wrote an incisive op-ed calling for a moratorium on Twitter replacements.
“No more Twitter replacements. Don’t sign up for any of them!” she wrote. “It’s obnoxious enough to toggle between microblogging apps, tweeting and skeeting and tooting the same words to slightly different audiences. Adding threading to the mix is too much. I’ve already seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, copying and pasting to skeet a tweet. It’s no way to live.”
But even Knibbs is struggling to adapt to the information landscape that’s emerged since.
“I’m still really in mourning a little bit over what has happened to Twitter,” she confesses. “I find it, to this day, extremely useful as a journalist. And I just really loved how it functioned as almost a way to enter our collective unconscious and find out what people were thinking about current events as they unfolded.”
Knibbs agrees with the many well-documented arguments for leaving the platform when it comes to general audiences. But as a journalist, she thinks it’s a tall order, even without the once-significant push from newsrooms to stay.
“When I am searching for real time information as someone who produces the news, I need to be looking for primary sources before there’s other news articles,” she adds, offering up the example of a story she wrote for Wired about increased usage of bidets during the pandemic.
“How do I find normal people who want to talk to me about bidets?” she muses. “I would go on Twitter and search ‘bought a bidet’ to see who was willing to share that they had bought a bidet. I would DM them and be like, ‘Can you tell me more about this?’ Often I’m trying to look for just regular people who are experimenting with software or participating in some sort of consumer behavior or holding some sort of opinion, and I don’t know how else people find those people to talk to unless you’re using your own literal social network and being like, ‘Mom, do you know anyone who bought a bidet?’ I don’t want just people who are in Chicago, who are, like, my mom’s friend.”
I took advantage of Twitter in similar ways as a local journalist in Kansas City, where I used the ability to search for tweets from within a designated zip code radius to find everything from people who moved back to their midwestern hometowns early in the pandemic to people seeking access to swimming pools in a brutal heat wave.
Josie Hollingsworth, audience engagement editor for Politifact, recognizes that journalists’ needs as information seekers are not the same as those of the general public. She still has no misgivings about urging journalists to redirect their time and energy away from X.
“A lot of my role has been to say, ‘Step away from Twitter,’” she says. “Honestly, from a business perspective, in the spirit of transparency, it’s not really necessarily in the news organization’s best interest to have reporters spending hours on Twitter per day.”
There are other reasons, too, though.
“Frankly, there’s just an all-out disregard for misinformation and harmful content on part of the platform,” she says. “It actually doesn’t work for trends in breaking news. … It used to present more real-time things, and now it just doesn’t.”
Hollingsworth studies audience behavior, though, so she knows there are scenarios that will bring us predictably back to X.
“From a business perspective … it’s not really necessarily in the news organization’s best interest to have reporters spending hours on Twitter per day.” Josie Hollingsworth, audience engagement editor for Politifact
“We know that for breaking news situations in your local area, you won’t not go to Twitter and suddenly turn on the local TV station,” Hollingsworth notes. “That audience behavior is just not gonna happen. If you used to go to Twitter for breaking news, I don’t see you turning on the TV.”
But if you want to make a shift, Hollingsworth has digital-first recommendations for journalists whose information-tracking habits have grown dependent on a constantly refreshing personal newsfeed. For commentary and discourse, she mentions that a lot of the people who once provided a steady stream of credible analysis and insight on Twitter have Substack newsletters you can subscribe to. Following people in that way is similar to following a trusted columnist whose perspective you value, except that it’s not necessarily connected to a specific news outlet (it’s since come to light that Substack has become an effective place for Nazi sympathizers to circulate and profit from harmful messaging, serving as an important reminder that manipulation by bad actors is a recurring theme for social media sites in general).
For news, Hollingsworth is a fan of short but substantial podcasts and newsletters. There are a lot to choose from, but CNN’s 5 Things, a podcast that drops five times a day and a newsletter that is sent every weekday morning, and NPR’s Up First, a daily morning podcast that gives you a 10-minute recap of the big stories airing on the network are among her favorites.
Farooq Ahmed went in a different direction.
“I went back to some old-school things,” he says. Specifically, a customized Google newsfeed and something more old-school than that: the library.
“I have library cards at a couple of different places,” he says, explaining that library cards give access not just to books on shelves, but also digital access to articles, even those published by newspapers whose websites have paywalls. “I don’t have to manage and pay for multiple subscriptions,” he says.
As for keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening before it’s news, that’s where we’re going to have to get creative again within our beats. “I think we’re entering an experimental phase,” says Knibbs.
As a science journalist, Ahmed relies heavily on conferences (either attending conferences or paying close attention to who’s presenting what) and reading insidery publications from specific industries and academic departments.
For Knibbs, who reports on culture and tech, social media is part of her beat, so wherever people go, she’ll go, too — even if there isn’t a single new place that offers the depth and breadth of potential sources Twitter once did. The closest thing to it, she says, is TikTok.
“I’ve sort of been coming to terms with the fact that for Gen Z and Gen Alpha, TikTok is really the Twitter replacement,” Knibbs says. “I have been spending a lot more time on TikTok lately, trying to understand the ins and outs, and recently had my first experience of finding out about breaking news scrolling on TikTok before other sources. When that shooting happened in Maine, TikTok was surfacing videos from people in the vicinity and that’s how I found out it was happening.”
Knibbs has concerns about this development. “It’s an amplification of the trend that’s been turning writers and journalists into influencers,” she says. She also worries about the added challenge of keeping up with fact-checking on a video-based platform, where journalists and others can’t just scan text-based posts to capture and review specific claims.
Regardless of platform, staying on social media as part of an information diet will require journalists to stay current on how misinformation circulates the proliferating platforms, updating their verification skills to maneuver responsibly in the ever-changing landscape.
In other words: Yes, these platforms continue to be useful for both sourcing and distributing stories. But no, efficiency is no longer among the benefits journalists digging for stories there can expect, ushering in what could be a fascinating time for experimentation for news consumers and producers alike.